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Reading The Propagandists’ Playbook: A Conversation with Francesca Tripodi

Audio of this conversation is available via your favorite podcast service.

When most people think about the problem of mis- and disinformation, they think first of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. But how might the affordances of search engines, when used by ideologically motivated individuals, contribute to an unhealthy information ecosystem? Dr. Francesca Tripodi has a new book out on the subject, The Propagandists’ Playbook: How Conservative Elites Manipulate Search and Threaten Democracy, which I had the chance to discuss with her this week.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.

Justin Hendrix:

Francesca, first off, how would you characterize your research interests more broadly, before we talk about the book?

Francesca Tripodi:

Oh, that’s a great question. I’m a sociologist and I’m really interested in how platforms, whether they be things like search engines or Wikipedia or the now defunct social media app Yik Yak. I’m interested in how these information systems interact with people and the way that society use these technological tools in ways that programmers did not anticipate or intend. So the through line in my research is I study what many refer to as sociotechnical vulnerabilities.

Justin Hendrix:

We could spend an entire hour on the demise of Yik Yak, and I wish we had time to do that-

Francesca Tripodi:

Another day.

Justin Hendrix:

… but perhaps we’ll instead focus on this book.

Francesca Tripodi:

I mean, I can do a really quick reason why Yik Yak failed.

Justin Hendrix:

Give it to me.

Francesca Tripodi:

Okay. So Yik Yak failed for two reasons. One, it tried to be Facebook. It was actually filling this great need for undergraduates in between classes. They loved that there was no setup and they were trying to create profiles to sell data. And the demise of Yik Yak was also its download function.

Justin Hendrix:

Well, I do recall sitting in the audience at South by Southwest listening to the two founders of Yik Yak talking about their plans for world domination and all of that of course created relatively quickly as people at South by Southwest reported that others around them were flatulent and other things of that nature. That’s kind of what I remember about Yik Yak. But let’s get serious. Let’s get into this book.

Francesca Tripodi:

Okay.

Justin Hendrix:

So, The Propagandists’ Playbook. You write in the preface of this book that you started out this project- an ethnography- in 2017, trying to understand how Trump voters made sense of the world through their news environment. What was going on for you in 2017? Where were you?

Francesca Tripodi:

Absolutely. I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the outcome of the election had shocked many people. We know this basically had tricked all the polls, but there was also this overwhelming narrative that these Russian bots or that fake news, how somehow tricked Trump voters into voting for Trump. And that, to me, seemed to lack complete agency and no context behind why voters might come to the polls thinking that this was the representative for them. And so I’m an audience ethnographer. I’m interested in how communities make sense of the information around them, and I wanted to give voice and agency to conservative voters because I felt the narrative was just thinking that they were these cultural dupes that had been tricked into voting for Trump.

Justin Hendrix:

And there were also, I suppose, some very specific events happening in Charlottesville, the lead up to the Unite The Right rally.

Francesca Tripodi:

Yeah, absolutely. So I started this research project in late May, early June, and at the same time as I was studying conservative groups, there was this underlying movement of white supremacist rallies that were coming to my hometown. And many people know about the Unite The Right rally, which happened roughly five years ago to the date. But very few people recognized that these rallies were building. There was one in May where Richard Spencer basically had a test run of white supremacists. They chanted the exact same phrases. They had a torch-lit march that night. It was just lower in scale.

And then the Ku Klux Klan came to the site to oppose what they referred to as cultural genocide or white genocide. So taken together, these groups were claiming that the removal of the Confederate statue was akin to removing whiteness, which is quite fascinating, right? Because you also had conservative voters who were coming to the polls. In the governor’s primary race you had essentially two main candidates running, Corey Stewart and Ed Gillespie. And Ed Gillespie barely won the primary. Corey Stewart was really galvanizing around this idea of cultural heritage being lost without explicitly noting that this cultural heritage is seeped in whiteness.

Justin Hendrix:

And I’m sure that created a great urgency for you. I don’t want to say you went undercover, but to do your ethnography you describe adopting a more conservative persona, changing your clothes, your hair, your makeup, essentially embedding yourself for a period of time in different communities that espoused conservative beliefs.

Francesca Tripodi:

So ethnography is about passing, what Goffman refers to as passing. So, no one’s going to trust you. You can’t galvanize trust if you are far removed from what someone might want to talk to. Now, I was 100% honest with my voting record. I approached people telling them I was a sociology professor and I gained access to these meetings by first going to the presidents of these meetings and getting approval to come to the meetings.

And then at the first meeting that I attended, I let people know I’m a researcher here. I’m interested in how voters make sense of the news around them. But I also am white. I’m a white woman. I have two kids. I’m married to a veteran. So it’s easier for me to pass in these spaces by, quite frankly, just not saying very much. I was very honest if someone asked me who I voted for. I told them, “Well, in 2016 I voted for Hillary Clinton,” and enthusiastically. But it was easier for me to blend in by just adopting a more conservative persona. Definitely.

Justin Hendrix:

You write that you did continually grapple with ethical questions surrounding your identity. Were there moments in particular where you felt like, I don’t know, it was difficult to pass or to carry on?

Francesca Tripodi:

It wasn’t so much being difficult passing. It was challenging for me sometimes to hold my tongue, right? I think the most challenging periods of disconnect I had was witnessing the violence of the Unite The Right rally, and then interviewing people who legitimately thought it had been staged as a way of making Trump look bad. And so that disconnect, or at the time of the Unite The Right rally, I was heavily embedded in media immersion where I was getting all of my news and information from sources of news that my respondents had flagged as trustworthy. So after going to the Unite The Right rally, I came home and watched the debrief on Fox. And, I mean, the disconnect between what I was directly experiencing and what I was being told was happening was definitely challenging.

I think the other ethical question in terms of when you study information that’s being shared on Facebook and danah boyd and Alice Marwick have really a fantastic article about context collapse and this idea of an invisible audience, I know at first this was very much a part of the informed consent process where I had my interview. I told them what I was doing. I had this project related and I would ask them if they were comfortable friending on Facebook. They said, “Yes,” we friended. And at first I think they remembered that, but after some time no one really remembers who they’re friends with on these social media platforms.

And so that’s where there was that tension. Or for example, people I would meet at the events would try to friend me on Facebook afterwards and I would decline their friend requests because I felt I couldn’t have a friend request without a explicit informed consent process that came with an individual interview, not the ethnographic observation. So, yeah, that was, I think, the tensions behind it, was having people who were telling me in interviews things that were just diametrically opposed to some of the realities that I was experiencing, as well as some of the things I just believe.

Justin Hendrix:

So this immersion lets you both observe individuals and then of course observe this media ecosystem. And you go on to contextualize thinking. You talk about the right wing information ecosystem building on the work of scholars like Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris. How do you think of, at this moment, the right wing media information ecosystem? And what distinguishes it from mainstream media?

Francesca Tripodi:

So I would say Yochai Benkler, Rob Faris, and Hal Robert’s book, Network Propaganda, was extremely influential in my book, and you see it cited just kind of continuously. And they, I think, answered that question better than me. They did this extremely comprehensive analysis of just hundreds of thousands of shared news and information, and they mapped the information ecosystem and they found that there was a very distinct group of information creators that were not using traditional forms of journalistic integrity, that were circulating conspiracies among themselves, that were amplifying rhetoric that was not true.

And what was fascinating is many of the key players that they mapped out were the sources of news and information that people in my study were saying was trustworthy. Where I add to this and where I call it more of an information ecosystem than simply a media ecosystem is, I explain how the information in these social media platforms and on Fox news and in the radio programming, are interlaced and then mapped onto internet searching. And so what I try to demonstrate with that is that it’s more than just firsthand listening. That people are going out there and doing more research on what they are being told to research, and then the way that search engines kind of amplify and reconfirm these truths offline as well as off TV, off radio. So kind of showing how they’re more interconnected.

Justin Hendrix:

You call this the active audience paradigm.

Francesca Tripodi:

So active audience paradigm is a really wonderful tradition of thinking about… It goes all the way back actually to Stuart Hall’s concept of encoding and decoding. There isn’t just one way to listen to some things. One’s cultural background heavily influences the way that people interact and engage with the media. And so I wanted to just get into the people that were consuming the ecosystem that Benkler et al had identified and tried to get to that deeper level of, “Well, why is this resonating?” If they’re trafficking in conspiracies and non-truths, why are these resonating with their audiences in a way that is spurring people to go to the polls and vote? That’s a very powerful motivation. So I was trying to get at some of those underlying questions.

Justin Hendrix:

You spend a bit of time trying to conceptualize what you call the five Fs, which you can describe if you like, but the underlying themes, narratives that are recurrent in a lot of the conservative thinking and media that you espouse or that you encounter in your effort, but you also talk about two central conspiracies that seem to be constantly at play.

Francesca Tripodi:

Yeah, the two central conspiracies you have is that the left is increasingly dangerous, and that the media cannot be trusted because they are an extension of the left. And what you see here is this deflection of blame. It actually goes all the way back to Nixon, describing those who are fighting for equal rights and racial equality during the Civil Rights movement, he was describing them as outside agitators. This is what allowed people to think that there were both sides to blame for violence happening during this time. And so, yeah, I mean, this idea that the left is somehow dangerous or radical is a huge theme used to deflect and also justify violence. And I think that is particularly concerning because it equates radical ideas like gun regulation, or, everyone should be paid the same, right?

They’re equating these ideas with white supremacist concepts that are saying that white people have bigger brains. I mean, these are things that they’re saying on their podcasts, and they’re claiming that these are backed with scientific evidence. So to somehow equate that extremism with radicalism I think is extremely concerning, because it creates this villain that the left is somehow hysterical, that they’re run by emotion and not intellect, that they’re the ones with the true facts, and that the left has increasingly become this party of intolerance. And that’s a huge through line throughout all the media that I was consuming.

Justin Hendrix:

So on some level what you’re observing is a group of people who are trying to reject, certainly, mainstream media and other knowledge institutions, in many cases reject facts or come up with ideas that will support a kind of alternative narrative or alternative explanation for events in the world. Is part of this about, I don’t know, hiving off this group of people from that mainstream, making sure that those connections are severed?

Francesca Tripodi:

What I would say, actually, it stems back to this concept of scriptural inference that I talked about in my 2018 data and society report, and really expand out more in this book. But within the United States there’s this deep tradition of Protestantism, and one of the core tenets of Protestantism is rejecting being told what to think by clergy. A huge part of Protestantism, especially in the United States, was founded on this idea that the individual is an equal member in the church as the pastor and that through this deep reading of the Bible they can come to interpret the word of Christ through their own lenses, through their own minds, through their own set of intellect, regardless of if they have the same level of training that clergy members go through.

There’s degrees in theology that for Protestantism was very much rooted in this individual exploration, this equating between those that were attending and those that were leading. And so I think what I talk about is that the conservative worldview is really about this individual exploration. So what I think is fascinating is that people who are in power that want to maintain these positions in power have created a way by which they are encouraging individual exploration with the goal of creating groupthink, but they are doing so in a way that’s saying, “Don’t trust me. I’m not the one that you need to think about this.” Or, “Hey…”

Even in Tucker Carlson’s just kind of basic monologue is a series of questions, not statements. And those questions aren’t designed to get people to think, “Hmm, maybe I should check this out.” Go to Google or DuckDuckGo. Any of these search engines will confirm falsities depending on what you start with. So what I think is actually quite brilliant behind this information ecosystem is that they understand that their audiences are much more inclined to trust information or trust stuff that they find on their own. And that is different from other audiences who are more inclined to trust experts in the field.

Justin Hendrix:

There are so many different ways that this idea of scriptural interpretation you look at in the book. I was struck by one particular anecdote about a Bible study that had started with a reflection on, I think, a bit of Old Testament scripture, and then ended up with a reflection on a tax reform bill.

Francesca Tripodi:

So often many of the respondents that I met with participated in large churches where there was offshoot hallways and small rooms were Bible studies would take place before the main service. And so we were in this Bible study together and it was… I was raised Catholic, so I’m not really familiar with reading the Bible to be quite honest. Catholics don’t really read the Bible in the same way. So going to a Bible study itself was different for me, but I got to this Bible study and we were reading the texts. People were sharing their own stories, and then it shifted focus and the leader of this group said, “I want you to apply this same direct reading that we’re doing to the new tax reform bill.”

Then he takes out this tax reform bill and he starts reading from it, and then he says, “Now these provisions, they are going to drastically influence different people differently, whether you’re the farmer or a small business owner, and so I encourage you not to trust what the media’s telling you about this bill. That you go and you actively read it yourself.” Now, whether or not people left that Bible study and went home and downloaded a copy of the tax reform bill, I do not know. But that is that moment where I realized that this focus on inerrancy is different from the way that progressives interact and engage with the Bible. There’s this fabulous book called Prophets and Patriots where Ruth Braunstein did this incredible ethnography of how conservative groups and progressive groups interact and engage with religion.

And it’s different, right? It’s a focus on the direct text versus empathetic listening and storytelling. And so if you’re coming to religion, which sociologists have demonstrated is a key way of creating these everyday routines and these constructs of reality, if you’re coming to religion with this direct understanding of a text and a notion that you can understand these texts as just an everyday individual, that practice gets applied to tax reform bills, it gets applied to the Constitution.

And we see this in the Supreme Court right now, as highly conservative judges are applying a direct translation of the Constitution without any reflection on when this Constitution was written, by whom this Constitution was written for, and why it might not be as representative of today’s public as it was when it was written, in a time when I certainly was not considered a person, Black people were not considered persons, indigenous people were not considered persons. So understanding and reflecting on that I think is very important.

Justin Hendrix:

We’ve got this notion of conservatism not as just worldview, but also as media practice.

Francesca Tripodi:

Yes.

Justin Hendrix:

And in this, one tool looms large. You write that regardless of party affiliation, it was clear from my interviews that voters’ primary method for finding political information was via Google. A lot of trust in Google.

Francesca Tripodi:

Absolutely. Now I’ll have to write an addendum at some point, because since my book, there has been a huge push to distrust Google. I served on the Senate Judiciary hearing where there was this idea of media bias and silencing conservatism. And there’s been this push to shift from Google to DuckDuckGo. But what I think is incredible is regardless of which one you go to, you can go to Bing, you can go to DuckDuckGo, you can go to Google, you can go to any of these search engines. If you prime audiences with a set of keywords and tell them that they need to go do their own research on these very distinct phrases, the way the internet works is, it works in relevance, regardless of which search engine you choose.

Now, the search engines you choose have very different practices when it comes to how they display that information, and they also have very different practices when it comes to how they sell your data that comes through that information. But when it comes down to search engine, it’s programmed in terms of relevance and a key part of relevance are the query itself. What are the words you’re looking for? Because algorithms can’t read. They’re not human beings. So we, human beings, have to tag content in phrases and words that are compatible with algorithms so that when they’re searching the billions of things available online, they can quick match our query and send us this information back. And so those keywords that we start with are so, so important and very few of us recognize the role keywords play in determining the kind of information that’s going to be returned to us.

Justin Hendrix:

This is where you introduce this idea of ideological dialects. What are ideological dialects?

Francesca Tripodi:

Sure. So I draw on Arlie Hochschild’s work of deep stories, which is a sociological way of thinking about how do you see the world? What are the stories you’ve told yourself so often that they don’t even feel like constructions? They just feel like natural, inevitable truths. The example that I provide, so I have a political one that we could use, and I have a non-political one. But the political one I use a lot in talks is how you conceive of immigration. So if you’re someone who conceives of immigrants as line-cutters, or people who are taking your jobs as “illegal aliens”, you might start a query with something like illegal alien voter fraud. And if you search for illegal alien voter fraud, the top return is ICE, the ice.gov that shows like 19 cases of voter fraud committed by undocumented workers.

But if you have this worldview or an ideological dialect that embodies immigration as part of American life and you’re like, “Hey, actually, these people should vote,” and you go to a search engine and you search undocumented workers voting rights, the top return, I think at the time, this changes obviously, but it’s like the ACLU. And so ice.gov is not actually fake news. That’s real. ACLU is not fake news. That’s also real. But these two websites will return diametrically opposed information that will ultimately reaffirm the position that you started with. And so we are actually living in these parallel internets where, because of the way we start querying, these information silos are kind of built around us in ways that we have, I think, much more agency around it than we’re giving ourselves credit for.

Justin Hendrix:

So Google is organizing the world’s information, but within that organization, there are ideological sub-organizations that people are building.

Francesca Tripodi:

Sure, absolutely. I mean, the algorithm also learns from the input, right? The output or how they tag and categorize and what information is returned to you, that’s proprietary. That’s on Google. We don’t know what they’re doing, and we also know that they’re definitely amplifying their own work. There’s been really great research that’s shown that in their top returns or subsidiaries of the company. I’m not a technological apologist. They’re very clearly profiting from our engagement with the platform and they’ve changed their design so that we stay on their platform instead of going to the website.

For example, there’s a great site that shows Wikipedia. Their knowledge graphs are often drawn from Wikipedia. When knowledge graphs were introduced, there was a 25% decline in people actually going to Wikipedia because they just read what’s on the knowledge graph and they don’t click on the Wikipedia page. So, Google is definitely part of this problem. But I think only thinking of the technology is a disservice because it does not put any of the onus on the individual that starts their search. If you’re starting your search with a very specific thing in mind, you’re going to get that specific information. Or an example I saw a lot in my research, people said this to me out loud. “Sometimes I’ll go to check it but the only thing I see is the stuff I already saw on Twitter.”

And I’m like, “Well, if you Google what you saw on Twitter, then, yeah. The only thing you are going to see is what you saw on Twitter.” And that’s not to say these people were… These people were smart, smart people, and so for them the lack of any other information meant that, “Well, then nothing must exist out there besides this information. This information must be true, or there’d be other perspectives,” instead of saying, “Huh, maybe this information’s really specific and so that’s why there’s only this information. Maybe there is actually other stuff out there, but because I Googled this very specific phrase, that’s the only stuff coming back.”

Justin Hendrix:

You give the example of Trish, Toys for Tots, Target. Perhaps that would illustrate a little bit about what you’re talking about.

Francesca Tripodi:

Oh, that’s my favorite example ever, because we sat down at lunch and she’s telling me how she votes with her dollars, and that’s not exclusive to… I mean, obviously, progressives vote with their dollars as well. And so I was saying, “Well, what’s an example?” And she’s like, “Well, I don’t shop at Target anymore because they stopped supporting the military.” And I was shocked to hear that. I mean, I’m married to a veteran. Many of my families are veterans. I’ve never heard of Target being bad news for the… I love Target. So I said, “Well, how would you look for that information?” She’s like, “You could just search for support of the US military, or Toys for Tots.” But those are really general inquiries. But what’s fascinating, when you did a search Toys for Tots military, her unsubstantiated claim was immediately confirmed. Target does not support the military.

And then the first return was a Snopes article. But what’s fascinating for this is, if you click on the Snopes article, it shows that it’s false. But the recap of what they claimed was in the Snopes article made it seem to me, as a quick read, that Trish’s claim was true. And then underneath Snopes was just a Facebook page that was seven years old that was saying this. And so doing these quick searches, not taking our time, not engaging in that exploratory search practice, relying on Google to just be this quick fact checker for us, can definitely lead a lot of people astray where they really walk away thinking that they’ve done their work, that like, “Okay, I’m going to make sure I’m not spreading untruths so let me go check it for myself.” And they go check it for themselves and they can walk away thinking false information is true.

Justin Hendrix:

So your book gets into a lot of detail around the complexity of keywords, tags, and again, this broader participatory process that we’re talking about here producing, ordering information. But you see this as a kind of structured effort in many ways. Is it fair to say that this effort probably is one that any ideological group is committed to?

Francesca Tripodi:

I would say this is a strategy that any ideological group could in theory activate. So, well, one, we wanted to see… I was very curious. Are conservative creators the only ones tagging their content in this sophisticated way? Or are progressive content creators also engaging in this metadata warfare? This like tagging their content in ways to understand how it elevates. And so I partnered with a data scientist and he had this script where he could pull from YouTube how content creators were tagging their own content. And, I mean, it was just like, content creators on the left just had no idea how people look for information. I mean, an example is something like AOC. AOC is Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s initials, and she goes by that on Twitter, so it’s like her Twitter handle.

But the right wing media has co-opted that phrase to vilify her as this radical crazy person. And so they tag their content, and that’s a good key word that they’re tagging their content as, AOC. And when you search AOC, there’s far more conservative leaning content regarding this Congresswoman than there is actual legitimate… I mean her Twitter handle isn’t even in the first return, and her Twitter handle is @AOC. So, just understanding how information flows, it seems that… And this is also documented in Jen Schradie’s work, The Revolution That Wasn’t. She looked at how conservative and progressive grassroots campaigns utilized the power of information-sharing to create social movements.

And she also found that because of things like time and money and power, the politicians and activists on the right were just better at it. That’s not to say that political strategists on the left can’t do it, but since the 1990s right political strategists, or even earlier, in the ’60s and ’70s, political strategists on the right have been very carefully articulating keywords and phrases to mean things that those who vote for them understand what they mean. They create a set of talking points that are extremely cohesive, that are organized around the five Fs of conservatism, that resonate with voters, and so, yeah, I mean, in theory, anyone could do this. But when I look at both historically, as well as what’s happening on the internet, it’s very clear that not everybody is doing this.

Justin Hendrix:

So in the book, if folks want to go deep, they can learn more about these ideas around keyword curation, strategic signaling, other ways that folks are leveraging the architecture of the web in order to create this information ecosystem and continue to feed it. But let’s just get right down to it because you do address this in the book. Is this project ultimately undergirded by a sort of white supremacist intent?

Francesca Tripodi:

What I show in my book is that white supremacy has become ingrained in a lot of mainstream thinking and that it has been that way for quite some time. And I’m not the first person to say this. I would say Black scholars have been saying this for a very long time, but what I demonstrate, and this is also, again, research has been done for quite some time, so things like privatization, the hate on public schools, these very much were tied to integration efforts that said you can no longer segregate public schools. The way that lawmakers defunded public transportation also coincided with integration and making segregation illegal.

But what I think is particularly alarming is the way that a lot of these narratives then just kind of get recycled with new YouTube personalities, and then they slap a different name on it and then it’s the same, like different or something. And so some of the examples that I draw on in my book that do this is the mantra that got thousands of people to the Capitol and which ultimately ended in an insurrection. In people storming the Capitol of the United States and denying a transfer of power after a free and fair election. The people were brought there because they were told the election had been stolen, and this idea of Stop the Steal, that was the name of the rally. Stop The Steel rally.

And at the time Google, if you typed in Stop the… Google would auto complete Steal, and then you could find your local Stop The Steal rally. What’s fascinating at the same time that that was happening, my research for this book had completed, but I was doing a separate research project on how information was circulating on Facebook concerning reopened groups, groups that were wanting to reopen places of worship, education and business during COVID-19. And I started seeing this mantra appearing on these Facebook groups and you can look at Google trends data, and there’s this spike in Stop The Steal that happened around the election.

But this idea of the stolen election actually traces all the way back to the 1800s after reconstruction, when Black men got the right to vote and they elected a record number of Black men to represent them in Congress. So all of a sudden you see this and Du Bois’ work is incredible. Actually W.E.B. Du Bois in his book, Black Reconstruction in America, uses the phrase misinformation in his chapter on the history of propaganda to say that as Black people were getting the right to govern themselves, all of a sudden you start hearing this lie that elections are stolen. And so I think it’s extremely important for us to recognize that these aren’t new ideas, that these are actually recycled concepts.

And so in my book I do the best I can to look historically at parallels between ideas being circulated now versus then. Another great example is this idea of outside agitators. So Antifa became the way that conservative politicians and pundits were trying to deflect the violence that occurred on January 6th. And also that keyword actually circulated on four chain message boards during the August 12th Unite the Right white supremacist rally. So they were like, “Oh, Antifa, these are these outside agitators.” And they used the phrase “outside agitators.” Outside agitators were how they referred to Black people fighting for equal rights under Martin Luther King, Jr.

They used the exact same analogy, they’re being paid to show up. And that idea, that whole concept, is validated through misinformation that somehow Black people aren’t capable of organizing themselves, or that somehow they are happy with the way things are. And that if it weren’t for these agitators that were paying people and putting these bad ideas in their heads, everything would just be fine and we’d just be fine. So understanding that through line of misinformation and the centuries by which this misinformation has been circulated, I think, is a huge part of my book. And I hope some people can understand that through line in a way that I don’t think has been talked about enough.

Justin Hendrix:

There is substantial academic literature on the idea that conservative people engage with, consume, produce misinformation, more so than folks across the aisle. Is this behavior, the set of behaviors, in many ways, do you regard it as a kind of, I don’t know, natural response? When the facts aren’t in your favor, when you know science isn’t in your favor, when the actual history of the country isn’t necessarily in your favor, that of course you’re going to create counterclaims.

Francesca Tripodi:

I mean, I’d like to actually take it one step further in saying, conservatism isn’t actually in the favor of many of those who vote for it. That it’s very much predicated on a very small number of persons retaining wealth and power, and that a lot of the policies that they advocate for under this guise of people are stealing your jobs, or if we pay people more you end up more in taxes. These are things that are not true. They don’t serve the public in a way that… And I think you can just look at how… I guess we could end it with one of my favorite stories was when I was working with USAID and I had people coming from all over the world to the United States.

And there was a gentleman from Ghana here and he was like, “How is there homelessness in the United States? How is that even possible when there’s so much wealth in our country? How is it possible that there are people sleeping on the street in your nation’s Capitol?” And that question, I think, just really resonated with me. So I guess I would just say, if our policies are working so well, if there is a lot of truth behind it, then why are so many of us failing? I don’t know.

Justin Hendrix:

Your book certainly complicates the role of big tech. It doesn’t necessarily, I guess, let big tech off the hook or let Google or Facebook or other firms off the hook, but it asks us to think about the role of the audience and the user as participating in these activities. But just to finish up here, in the past few days as social media platforms, TikTok, Facebook, to some extent, Google, they’ve all announced what they plan to do about election misinformation in the 2022 midterm cycle. Would you say, based on your analysis, that those efforts are limited in their potential efficacy by the phenomena that you’re describing here?

Francesca Tripodi:

Yeah. I mean, I would say, so, I don’t study the same platforms with the same level of research and so I wouldn’t feel comfortable replying to that specific question because I don’t want to talk more than I know. But the one way that I would say I do not let Google off the hook or other search engines off the hook is that the design shifts in how they order information really do matter more than I think they are recognizing. And Sarah Roberts and Siva Vaidhyanathan, they’ve talked a lot about this idea of slow media. How can we engage more in… Sarah Roberts is at an information school as well, so we like this idea of exploration. How can we encourage people to take more time in searches that really matter?

So, yeah, if you’re cooking and you can’t remember how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon and you don’t have your tablespoon and you go to Google real quick, you ask Alexa, sure. That’s a quick fact-retrieval process. But if you’re trying to figure out the complexities of an attempted coup on the United States government and you’re done with just the first return, maybe we need to think a little bit more. Also I think we often conceptualize these companies as the helpful librarian, or the public sphere, and they are neither the public sphere nor the public library. These are private companies heavily interested in increasing shareholder profit by selling our data.

And so if we’re really seeking out good information, to me, it doesn’t matter any of the things that they would change. It’s odd to me that we’re trusting large corporations to find information, and that no one is like, “Hm, that’s kind of weird that we’re just cool with very large corporations giving us knowledge.” So, I would say, that’s where I could see any of these… Great, put in whatever, however many… Anticipate however much you can to try to tag bad content. But also I’ve noticed, I don’t really think these are working that well. For example, I gave a talk at a bookstore, yes, last night, on my book. And the local bookstore tried to boost the talk and Facebook flagged it as political advertising, and so they wouldn’t do it.

Now, yeah, I’m talking about politics for sure, but that’s different. So I feel like once again they’ve created these algorithms with very specific tags. I think another great example is like, when I tried to book… Anyway, sorry, this is off topic. I just feel like they’re trying to create these techno solutions to a problem that’s way deeper than that, and I think the problem is actually that people should not look for information only on Facebook. And if you’re looking for some information on Google, you have to recognize, “Okay, why are these the returns being returned to me? What else might be out there? Are all these returns saying the same thing? Isn’t that odd that only these people are saying this? What else could I think about in terms of what I search?”

Justin Hendrix:

Is there any recommendation that you would give to executives at Google or at Facebook or other firms that are responsible for creating these techno social systems? What would you tell them? Do they have a responsibility to disrupt this behavior?

Francesca Tripodi:

I think they’re very different platforms, so I would first say Pinterest, for example, did a great job. They were like, “Guess what? Pinterest is not where you should go for health information. So anything regarding health information, we’re going to take down.” And I think Facebook’s a great way to post pictures of your kids and connect with that person from high school that you forgot about, and they made it our “news feed,” but that’s actually not where we should be getting the news.

And I really think that Facebook has a responsibility to say, “We are a social media platform. We’re great for sharing pics and connecting family and keeping in touch with that friend. But maybe we aren’t qualified nor should we be a space where people are getting information.” I would say, with Google, how they’re ordering information really matters. Where they’re scraping these knowledge graphs matter. When their knowledge graphs are wrong, how can people let them know? I know who to tweet at and who to send an email to. I’m just like, “That should be something that everyone has access to.” When they’re noticing wrong information, how can they get that fixed?

Justin Hendrix:

The book is The Propagandists’ Playbook: How Conservative Elites Manipulate Search and Threaten Democracy. Francesca, thank you so much for speaking to me.

Francesca Tripodi:

Thank you for your time, Justin. This was awesome.

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